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By the narrowest of margins this week, dueling bills that were intended to allow Utah air quality regulations to exceed federal standards failed, one on the Senate floor and another in a Senate committee.

The more moderate of the two, HB121, would amend an old statute that bars the Air Quality Board from enacting tougher rules to instead allow those that are deemed "reasonable." But the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Thursday changed that language to instead allow stiffer rules that "provide evidence-based protections," then failed to advance the bill in a 3-3 vote.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, blasted the change, arguing it would keep the bill from unshackling Utah regulators to craft rules that address Utah's unique air quality problems.

"This is the moment for the Legislature to speak to clean air. Everything else was an aside. So far we are failing the test," said the committee's lone Democrat, before voting against the bill, joining two conservative Republicans. "The system is rigged to not have clean air."

But HB121's sponsor, Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, intends to find a back-door pathway to the Senate floor for her bill, which has won a favorable recommendation in a House committee. The bill would need a senator to move for a suspension of rules. A savior is emerging in Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Wood Cross, who said he plans to make the motion because the bill deserves consideration by the full Senate.

Should Edwards and Weiler succeed, passage is a good bet for HB121, among the most closely watched of some two dozen air-related bills this session. Senators on Wednesday failed to approve a stronger bill by a single vote. SB164, sponsored by Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, was intended to repeal the 1989 statute that prohibits the state from enacting tougher rules.

Edwards' bill would keep the prohibition, but would make it easier to get around it. In consultation with industry, which argued hard against Davis' bill, she agreed to compromise language that included the "reasonable" standard.

"It allows for rules based on evidence and studies. It involves public hearings and comment and maintains the existing administrative rule-making process," she told the Senate committee Thursday. "It allows local control to address our local needs. All this bill does is give Utah options."

Division of Air Quality Director Bryce Bird said federal regulations are rarely based on modeling relevant to Utah's mountain valleys and winter weather.

"They don't always do things that benefit us or address our situation," he told the committee. "We know our pollution is different than what develops in other areas of the country."

Critics of the bill warned of unintended consequences and said Environmental Protection Agency rules are plenty tough. But clean-air activist Alicia Connell argued Utah's prohibition on tougher rules has kept the state from requiring waste incinerators to install continuous dioxin monitors.

Critics on both sides of the issue voiced heartburn over the word "reasonable," a term open to interpretation but common in many areas of the law. Oil refineries and other industrial polluters, which have more representation on the Air Quality Board than the public, define "reasonable" narrowly and may reject measures that cut into profits, activists said.

"Moms have a God-given obligation to advocate for their children," said Ingrid Griffee, of Utah Moms for Clean Air. "There is nothing wrong with seeking profit; it's just that we are not going to see eye-to-eye on what's reasonable."